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OnePlus has officially announced the Nord, its first serious attempt at a midrange handset since 2015’s ill-fated OnePlus X. Yet, despite the fact that it starts at just £379 (around $480), the phone shares a lot of the DNA of the $699 OnePlus 8 released just a few short months ago, which, along with the OnePlus 8 Pro, was the company’s flagship handset for this year.
It’s still got a 1080p OLED display with a 90Hz refresh rate, Sub-6GHz 5G, Warp Charge 30T fast charging, and the same 48-megapixel main camera sensor as the OnePlus 8. That’s not to say there haven’t been concessions made to reach this lower price point, the most important of which is that the Nord is powered by a slower Snapdragon 765G processor, but in a lot of other cases the compromises are small.
The Nord will be available in both blue and gray with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of internal storage for £379 / €399 or with 12GB of RAM and 256GB of storage for £469 / €499 (around $594). It’ll be widely available starting August 4th in Europe, but OnePlus plans to sell some of the handsets early today via its own website and at a John Lewis pop-up on July 31st. It’s only coming to Europe and India for now, although OnePlus says it has plans for a limited beta launch in the US. You’ll have to wait until next week for our full review, but for now here are my initial impressions based on using the 12GB RAM model.
If offering similar specs to the OnePlus 8 in a midrange phone sounds like a recipe for stealing some of the 8’s thunder, then you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. In fact, OnePlus co-founder Carl Pei told me that’s almost the point. Although he says the two phones are targeting different markets, he doesn’t want the company to be afraid of competing with itself.
“It’s never been a fear because I believe that if you’re not the one disrupting yourself then all your competitors on the market will feel free to disrupt you,” Pei says.
What does a phone that’s “disrupting” its own lineup look like?
In a lot of respects, it looks like a handset with broadly similar features, just offered with slightly lower specs. The Nord’s screen is a great example. It’s still got a 90Hz refresh rate, it’s still OLED, and it’s still 1080p, but it’s also a little bit smaller at 6.44-inches and it doesn’t curve round the edges of the device like the 8’s did. That makes the phone feel a little less premium, but the impact on day-to-day usage is minimal.
Then there are its rear cameras. On the back of the OnePlus Nord, you’ll find four rear cameras, a 48-megapixel main camera, an 8-megapixel ultrawide-angle camera, a 2-megapixel macro camera, and a 5-megapixel depth sensor. That’s technically one more camera than the OnePlus 8 (which lacked a dedicated depth camera), but the important thing is that the camera you’ll actually use to take your photos has exactly the same 48-megapixel Sony IMX586 sensor. The compromise, meanwhile, comes with the wide-angle camera, which has half the resolution of the OnePlus 8’s.
When it comes to the front-facing camera, however, OnePlus is actually breaking new ground with the Nord. Here you’ll find two front-facing cameras, including an 8-megapixel sensor ultrawide camera with a 105-degree field of view, as well as a more traditional 32-megapixel selfie camera. It means the screen’s hole-punch cutout is twice as big, but it’s a useful feature if you’re trying to take a selfie with a group of friends or just want to include more of your environment.
The big question, and one that’s hard to answer based on specs alone, is what sort of impact the Nord’s less powerful Snapdragon 765G will have on its camera performance. It’s long been clear that software processing is almost as important as hardware when it comes to picture quality, meaning we could still see a difference in picture quality between the 8 and the Nord, despite the Nord’s similar sensors.
If there are any other significant downsides to having a slower processor, then I’m yet to feel them in day-to-day use. Apps open quickly and feel responsive to use, and even spending a brief time in a more intensive 3D title, Sky: Children of the Light, didn’t reveal any serious performance hiccups.
In fact, Pei says it was the quality of midrange processors like this that gave OnePlus the confidence to attempt making the Nord in the first place. “We didn’t take the plunge until now because we felt like the technology wasn’t really ready to deliver a good experience,” Pei tells me. “Now we finally feel like technology, especially the processor, has matured to the level where we can deliver the same experience that consumers have come to associate with OnePlus: [a] fast and smooth experience in a midrange package.”
The Nord’s 90Hz screen can probably take credit for a lot of how smooth the phone feels to use. It’s a feature that’s virtually unheard of at this price point and it offers a marked improvement over the 60Hz panels that are still common on most phones. OnePlus is no stranger to high-refresh rate panels, but it’s great to see this come to a midrange device, even as many other manufacturers are only now bringing them to their flagship devices.
As well as feeling smooth to use, the Nord’s 6.44-inch screen also feels very big. I asked Pei whether the company had ever considered making a phone with a smaller screen, but he said the trade-offs aren’t worth it. Not only is having a bigger display important for content consumption, he told me, but it’s also important for battery life.
“If you reduce the size of the phone, the first thing that you have to compromise on is the battery life,” Pei said, “Making it even smaller would kind of tilt the balance in a way that’s not optimal for the overall user experience.”
It’s hard to disagree too much with Pei here. The OnePlus Nord includes a very respectable 4,115mAh battery, which is only a hair smaller than the 4,300mAh battery in the 8. It also won’t have to power a separate modem thanks to the integrated model in the Snapdragon 765G, while Qualcomm’s flagship processors this year have to be used with separate modems.
If these differences sound minor to you, then I really wouldn’t blame you. But look at the OnePlus 8 and the Nord side by side and, yes, it’s easy to tell which of the two is the more premium device. The 8 has the curved display, while the Nord’s is flat, and the rear of the Nord is a little cheaper and more plastic-feeling in comparison.
On first impressions, however, the Nord doesn’t feel that different in day-to-day use. It still feels quick and responsive, its camera specs are in a similar ballpark, and it’s not missing out on any features that weren’t already missing from the OnePlus 8 like wireless charging and an IP rating (you had to jump up to the OnePlus 8 Pro for both).
The result is a really interesting device that, on paper at least, ticks a lot of the boxes for what you’d like to see in a modern smartphone, regardless of whether it’s technically a midrange or a flagship. That’s especially interesting in the context of the recently released OnePlus 8, of which the Nord is definitely nipping at the heels. Whether the Nord manages to deliver on them in practice will be a matter for our full review.